Study in Orange (1904), by René Le Bègue. Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1933. Courtesy the MET Museum, New York


Eros at play

Why the ancient erotic poems of Sappho and Wallada bint al-Mustakfi are far more stimulating than modern pornography

by Jamie Mackay + BIO

Study in Orange (1904), by René Le Bègue. Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1933. Courtesy the MET Museum, New York

A woman rests in a field surrounded by apple trees. Savouring the sounds and smells of the shaded grove, she muses on the ‘sacred recess’ of her idyllic surroundings, and surrenders herself to fantasy. The wind is ‘honey sweet’, the air perfumed with ‘musk roses’. She is waiting for a lover. ‘Come to me from Crete,’ our narrator calls out to an anonymous and distant figure. Her words are charged with desire. ‘Ice-water babbles’ among ‘flickering leafage’ while ‘horses’ – a traditional symbol of masculine virility – ‘graze knee-deep in flowers’. What has triggered this outpour of erotic yearning? Are these the daydreams of a hot summer’s day? Is the subject drunk, as her eulogising of the local ‘nectar’ might suggest? Might she even, as some critics have speculated, be masturbating?

For all the distractions of our contemporary lives, reading Sappho today remains just as exhilarating as it was 2,000 years ago when, as one of the foremost poets of the ancient world, her poems were widely anthologised. Her delicate style, her withholding of details and delaying of pleasure, has drawn admiration from such canonical figures as Charles Baudelaire and A C Swinburne, even Oscar Wilde, who trilled ‘never had Love such a singer’.

Sappho’s restraint remains strangely gratifying today, when sexuality is so intensely visual, imposed top-down through the peculiar marriage of pornography and pop culture. Her verses are themselves pornographic, of course, but we’d be shortsighted in aligning them with the music videos, high-street adverts and internet clips that dominate our sexual imaginations today. Modern porn is, on the whole, relentlessly present-tense, populated by anonymous bodies performing athletic feats for the instant gratification of a voyeuristic audience. That Sappho’s work – intimate, reflective, euphemistic – maintains its allure against such a backdrop is surely significant, then. What does her work provide that modern porn cannot? And what does this tell us about our sexual imaginations more generally?

Much of the answer can be attributed to the poet’s particular evocation of ‘the erotic’. Today, the term conjures up images of burlesque performances, of teases designed to prolong the often-rushed experience of modern sex. For the Greeks, though, Eros was not an action but a god, the son of Aphrodite herself. He was bisexual, notoriously unruly, and capable of intoxicating all beings with an irrational, manic energy. His role in literature was quite precise: to shape pothos (desire) into kharis (gratification). His preferred environments were gardens, which were in many cases imagined to be populated with nymphs and naiads. If Eros’s main duty was to facilitate sexual relationships, his divine nature also served to unite bodily experience with metaphysics through an ambiguous, quasi-magical communion.

From the outset, poetry was tasked with explaining the limits of this exhilarating and dangerous life force. All of the major classical writers – from Aeschylus and Pindar to later Roman imitators such as Ovid – dedicated meditations to the god. Sappho, though, was perhaps the most gifted at articulating his contradictory traits. In her work, Eros is not a beast, like Pan or the satyrs. He is a ‘weaver of tales’, a storyteller and seducer. At the same time, he is a ‘sweet, bitter, impossible creature’, a dualistic and ambiguous force, anarchically transgressing the boundary between pleasure and pain. One of Sappho’s most playful descriptions of Eros is as a ‘limbslackener’, a kind of cosmic lubricant. In all cases, his real power is his unique capacity to bridge the realm of ideas with corporeal reality. As Plato describes in his Phaedrus, there is no separation between ‘forms’ and ‘the body’ in the sphere of Eros: both worlds are united through the dualistic ontology of sex as both an activity and an idea.

Sappho’s writing on love has aged better than Plato’s, thanks to the ease with which the poet fuses such abstract metaphysics with more recognisable intimate realities. Fragment 16, for example, begins with a reflection on Eros’s conventional associations with ‘thronging cavalry’ and ‘foot soldiers’ which, she concedes, are for some ‘the most beautiful of sights the dark Earth offers’.

In the second half of the poem, however, Sappho goes on to define her own contrasting aesthetic ideals. ‘Anactória,’ she writes, ‘I’d rather see her lovely step, her sparkling glance and her face than gaze on all the troops in Lydia in their chariots and glittering armour.’ This is a beautiful turn of phrase. The way her beloved walks, the glint in her eye, is charged here with all the vitality of great battles and the power games of the Olympians. For Sappho, the ‘everyday’ does not have to mean the mundane domesticity of the oikos (household), it too can be charged with the drama and turmoil of the epic:

[ the]
sweetness of your laughter: yes, that – I swear it –
sets the heart to shaking inside my breast, since
once I look at you for a moment, I can’t
speak any longer,
but my tongue breaks down, and then all at once a
subtle fire races inside my skin, my
eyes can’t see a thing and a whirring whistle
thrums at my hearing,
cold sweat covers me and a trembling takes
ahold of me all over: I’m greener than the
grass is and appear to myself to be little
short of dying.

At first, these lines might seem a little flat; rather straightforward precursors to the ballads and love songs of later centuries. Look again, though, at the physical descriptions. The ‘subtle fire’ that ‘races inside’ her skin, the near-blindness and sense of ‘whirring’ are not mere butterflies in the stomach. For Greek poets, organs and physiology were a way of diagnosing sexual excitement in quasi-medical terms. Laughter, for example, and particularly ‘near-death’ experiences would have been recognisable indicators of himeros (desire-in-fulfilment). With this in mind, the poem reveals a meaning that is lost to many contemporary readers: it is not about nerves at all, but the experience of orgasm!

Most of us have become accustomed to thinking of sex as something purely physical, an act limited to the temporal confines of coitus itself. Modern pornography perpetuates this through its prioritising of close-up action shots and hectic montages over narrative continuity. Eros, by contrast, is best approached through anticipation, memory and storytelling. In Sappho’s hands, we might say that poetry itself becomes an erotic technology, a unique time-machine, capable of stretching and containing the experiences of desire and climax into a unified artistic object.

Greek writers were not alone in the ancient world in understanding sex as something potentially transcendental. As far back as 4000 BCE, poets were imagining physical love as part of the Universe’s very substance. ‘Give me pray of your caresses, my lord god, my lord protector,’ writes one anonymous author in a prayer to the ancient Sumerian goddess Inanna. Similar responses to creation myths can be found in works from Egypt, Persia and across the Near East. Manikkavacakar, the Tamil poet, describes himself transformed into ‘wax before an unspent fire’ and possessed by ‘love’s unrelenting seizure’ during a shamanic ritual. Āṇṭāḷ, his contemporary, describes her overwhelming desire to give her ‘swelling breasts’ to a lord that ‘would fold [her] into his radiant chest’. The Kāvyaprakāśa, an anthology of Sanskrit poetry, goes as far as to describe the preferred sex positions of various divinities. We learn that the goddess Laksmi ‘loves to make love to Vishnu from on top’, and that, when she puts her hand over his right eye ‘which is the Sun […] night comes on’.

This diversity of sexual cosmologies is fascinating in its own right. If nothing else, it reminds us that, while Eros looked a certain way to Greeks, his vital energy was expressed through many different masks. Ancient polytheisms, with their pantheon of gods, certainly seem to have provided a functional epistemology through which to understand the complexity of sexual desire. Monotheistic religion has proved arguably less capable. Indeed, one of the explicit functions of scripture historically has been to contain the erotic drives and impulses that were permitted within the so-called classical pagan worldview. A famous example is Paul’s Letter to the Romans which condemns female promiscuity, homosexual sex and, it often seems, desire in general. Muslims, meanwhile, are required by the Quran to refrain from extramarital sex and, more generally, to ‘guard their private parts’.

Poetry, though, like sex itself, tends to find ways around such oppressive strictures. A case in point is 10th-century Sicily. The island, where Sappho herself is thought to have lived for a time in exile, was then governed as an emirate by the Aghlabid dynasty, a minor power from modern-day Tunisia. Far from the centre of authority in Baghdad, officials in this peripheral territory found it hard to enforce top-down religious power. Cultural mixing between Muslims and non-Muslims was relatively commonplace, and a melange of languages, customs and presumably sexual practices were exchanged. Alcohol was consumed freely and was openly linked to poetry and other Bacchanalian pleasures. Ibn Ḥamdīs, one of the island’s most renowned authors from the period, celebrates ‘rose-coloured wine mixed with water, which reveals stars among sun rays’ and allows the drinker to ‘hunt the care of the soul’. He describes sex too, in bucolic and recognisably Sapphic terms. ‘When two bodies meet and are consumed with passion,’ he writes, ‘the fruits of pleasure are harvested as soon as they are planted.’

Poetry is a mechanism with the capacity to mimic the very conditions that make sex enjoyable

Córdoba, then also under Muslim rule, served as a meeting point for this (by now nomadic) tradition of cultural transmission. Here, Moorish tropes of opulence and luxury were harmonised with classical eroticism in a more consolidated fashion. Ibn ‘Abd Rabbihi’s poem about an ‘unparalleled’ pearl – which was ‘by its own pudor reformed and now cornelian’ – is clearly a panegyric to the clitoris. Ibn Zaydún recalls ‘delicious’ days spent ‘while fate slept’ as he and his partner indulged their fantasies as ‘thieves of pleasure’. Western ideas about Islamic sexuality often linger on the image of reclining emirs receiving sexual services from their numerous concubines. Really, this is a partial image. In fact, it was a woman, Wallada bint al-Mustakfi, who most successfully merged Islamic sensuality with the formal tropes of Eros. ‘I give my lover power over my cheek, and I offer my kisses to him who desires them,’ reads an inscription on the sleeves of a transparent gown that Wallada wore to meet her suitors.

Once again, though, it is the poet’s particularly skilful manipulation of temporality, her evocation of sexual anticipation, that best demonstrates the enduring legacy of classical eroticism:

When night falls, plan to visit
For I believe night is the time that keeps
secrets best.
I feel a love for you that if the lights of
heaven felt, the Sun would not shine,
nor the Moon rise, nor the stars begin their
nightly journey.

Here, pleasure is delayed, imagined once again in the future tense, but with the novel addition of an undeniably modern impatience. Nature cannot contain the author’s passion, as was possible in Sappho’s ode to her Cretan lover. Instead, the verse is stretched to breaking point, threatening the passing of day to night and with it the very order of the Islamic world. There is something obviously heretical about this. For most Muslim poets, sexuality is a godly gift emerging as an aspect of Allah’s love. Here, it is a human pleasure, recomposed from the memories of what were, at the time, forgotten ancient sources. Once again, like Sappho, Wallada’s genius stems from her treatment of poetry as functional tool, a mechanism with the capacity to reveal and indeed mimic the very conditions that make sex enjoyable in the first place.

While temporal fluidity is certainly the most recognisable of Eros’s literary calling cards, the real power of the above poems stems from the confidence of the narrators. These are intimate, confessional voices, unflinching in their self-expression. Just as importantly, they are ‘other-focused’, in a way that is rarely true of modern porn. Among other descriptions, Sappho writes beautifully of a man who ‘matches the gods’, Wallada of a lover whose body leaves her ‘burning with the brands of desire’. In both authors’ work, subject and object are united through poetic logic. Modern porn objectifies by reducing people to their performative sexual roles. Eros also requires objectification, though he achieves this in a quite different way. Here, the other must be mysterious and removed but, at the same time, fully realised: for an erotic poem to work, readers have to believe that the unheard voice possesses all the burning emotions of the speaker.

It’s tempting to see such ‘depth’ as something intrinsic to literature itself. It’s vital to remember, though, that not all literary sex is erotic. The medieval period, in particular, saw a flurry of works that diverged considerably from Sapphic tropes. Think of Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, with its elaborate tales of transgression, deception and partner-swapping. This is not at all concerned with individual subjectivity, but with satire and political commentary. The same might be said of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales or William Shakespeare’s early farces. None of this is to downplay these works’ various artistic merits. What it does demonstrate, however, is that the ‘obvious’ link between Eros and pornography would unravel over time, ultimately to the point of separation.

It’s impossible to pinpoint exactly when and how today’s ‘modern porn culture’ was established. It would take many centuries before a self-conscious distinction between ‘the erotic’ and ‘porn’ would prove necessary. However, Walter Benjamin’s much-cited argument of 1936 – that mass culture, and the ‘reproduction’ of art, drained the aura and authenticity of expression – provides a useful philosophical framework for understanding the conditions underpinning this shift. In the case of pornography specifically, we could point to the lithograph, photography and film as catalysts of an aesthetic that would focus more and more on ‘hollow’ anonymised bodies. The erotic dualism of subject and object was, in such terms, gradually eclipsed by a consumer-focused model better equipped to meet the demand for exchangeable commodities.

Every comma, like every mole on a human body, is an individual marker

Growing secularism also played a role in this shift. As is well-known, in post-war Europe, the monotheistic dogmatism that had characterised previous centuries began to make way for more liberal attitudes. ‘Sexual intercourse began in nineteen sixty-three,’ as the English poet Philip Larkin quipped in ‘Annus Mirabilis’ (1974). While many of the consequences were positive – including the relaxation of censorship around porn – the implications for Eros were less positive. Representations of sex did not go from being shameful to liberated overnight. On the contrary, driven by the imperatives of markets and technology, porn became a kind of inescapable sleazy wallpaper, losing its ties to art in the process. If Boccaccio and Chaucer marked a move away from eroticism, post-war capitalism provided the conditions for porn to evolve into a genre that, in the words of Alan Moore in 25,000 Years of Erotic Freedom (2009), ‘not only had no standards but also appeared to think it had no need of them’.

Of course, the erotic did not vanish altogether. From Dominique Aury (the pen name of the French journalist Anne Declos) to E L James (who wrote the Fifty Shades series of novels), contemporary writers continue to draw on classical tropes of desire and subjectivity with varying degrees of success. Even in cinema, which has had a particular role in displacing Eros, there are vital exceptions. Take Ingmar Bergman’s film Persona (1966). Instead of bombarding the viewer with gratuitous nudity, the director seeks to arouse through past-tense narrative and the spoken word. In one particularly powerful scene, a woman describes an event in which she and a friend had sex with some strangers on a beach (several times). The allure, though, comes less from the graphic details than the confessional atmosphere itself. Just as Sappho focuses on the anonymity of her subjects, and melting of bodies into their environment, so Bergman uses descriptions of the waves and sand, the mystery of the strangers, to reinforce the thinking-feeling complexity of his narrator.

It’s curious, though, that with so many new-fangled options for titillation, poetry remains so well-equipped to transmit Eros. The Italian philosopher Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi provides one explanation in his definition of verse as a ‘language of non-exchangeability’. Every element in a poem is integral, he argues: no detail, word or line break can be altered without fundamentally changing the individual nature of a work. Just as lovers in the truly erotic imagination can’t be interchanged, neither can poems be ‘substituted’ by one another. Every comma, like every mole on a human body, is an individual marker. If capitalism seems happy to treat people as exchangeable utilities, poetry celebrates what is unique and human to each subject. Presuming modern porn really does represent the sexual imaginary of mass culture, Berardi’s argument emphasises just how far outside of this paradigm Sappho’s or Wallada’s work lies.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of reading erotic poetry today is its capacity to help us confront the problems of modern porn beyond the discourse of uncritical moral panic. This is less a question of ‘perversion’ or ‘sin’ than recognising a relatively one-dimensional idea of human sexuality for what it is. Erotic poetry is not just a masturbatory aid – though it can also provide that function – it’s an attempt to directly represent the complexity of human sexuality in a way that far exceeds the ambitions of modern porn. Its power comes not from physicality in and of itself, but from its sensitivity to the quasi-spiritual nature of desire and the intrinsic mysteriousness of other people. Given the pertinence of such themes, it’s a shame that this genre is still so often disregarded as relatively frivolous. Rejecting this easy stereotype would surely be a start in facing up to the prudishness that strangely lingers on in our apparently enlightened times. More profoundly still, it might even help us cast off the imaginative constraints of mass culture and reclaim sexual pleasure on our own unalienated terms.